Advancement to Candidacy

For Advancement to Candidacy, a student must complete: 

  • Qualifying Examination which consists of both written and oral components
  • Dissertation thesis research topic proposal and proposal defense 

The Dissertation Committee

Following completion of the laboratory rotations and no later than the end of the 2nd semester, a student will select a Dissertation Advisor who must be a member of the Ph.D. in Biology Faculty, but not necessarily a member of the Department of Biological Sciences.

A Dissertation Advisor can dismiss a student at any time because of poor performance under their direction or failure to demonstrate timely progression towards the degree. If a student is dismissed by his/her Dissertation Advisor, it is the student’s responsibility to arrange for a replacement advisor within 4 months. If no faculty member has agreed to serve as the Major Advisor within the designated time period, the student will be terminated from the program. The student must notify the Graduate Coordinator of the new Major Advisor using the Appointment of Doctoral Committee form.)

A student will submit the Appointment of Doctoral Dissertation Committee form. The Dissertation Committee includes the major advisor, who will serve as chair or co-chair of the committee. A students Dissertation committee is to be composed of no fewer than 4 members, two of whom must be from the Ph.D. in Biology Faculty; at least 50% of the committee must be members of the Department of Biological Sciences. The remainder of the committee should complement the proposed plan of study and reflect the interdisciplinary focus of the program. The inclusion of 1 member on the Dissertation Committee from outside the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is encouraged. The Graduate Coordinator will request approval of the Dissertation Committee from the Dean of the Graduate School after appropriate consultation with the Dissertation Advisor and the student. One additional member of the Dissertation Committee will then be appointed by the Graduate School to serve as graduate faculty representative.

The Student and his/her committee must meet by the end of the 3rd semester of study to set a timeline for the Qualifying Exam and thesis proposal defense. In addition, a student is required to meet with his/her dissertation committee at least once a year after the establishment of the committee. This provides the committee with an opportunity to give input for the student’s research and spot deficiencies, if any, in his/her course of conducting dissertation research.


Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Exam will occur after all coursework necessary for the degree has been completed (expect for Dissertation Research) and must be taken no later than the end of the 5th semester of doctoral study. The exam consists of a written portion (taken first) and an oral portion (taken only after passing the written portion). Successful completion of both written and oral components is required.

Written Component of the Qualifying Exam will cover 5 areas:

  • two areas associated with the required Ph.D. core curriculum (see list of 50 Core Area Choices)
  • one area of the student’s specific research interest and thesis research
  • one area selected by the student’s Major Advisor or Dissertation committee typically related to elective coursework and thesis research concentration of the student
  • one area selected by the student typically related to elective coursework and thesis research concentration of the student.

A tentative list of the areas that will be covered on the written exam, particularly those pertaining to the student’s research interests and elective courses, will be established during the process of approving the Curriculum Contract. The written exam should be administered by the end of the 5th semester of study.

Written questions will be selected or generated by each Dissertation Committee member. Typically, 2-3 questions will be selected/generated for each of the 5 areas. During the exam, the student will select one question from each area, such that the written exam will consist of a total of 5 answered questions.

The Major Advisor and/or Dissertation Committee will give the student his/her specific question set and determine if the exam is open- or closed-book. The student will select one question from each of the 5 areas. The student will write the exam using a computer (not Wi-Fi capable) provided by the department. The exam will be proctored by the Major Advisor or a designated member of the Dissertation Committee. The time allotted for the written exam will be 4 hours, time certain.

Questions will be graded by the Dissertation Committee members who generated/selected them. Grading must be completed within one week. The Committee then meets with the student to announce the results. A student must receive a grade of A or B on at least 4 of the 5 areas to pass the written exam. If a student receives a grade of C on 2 or more of the 5 areas, or a grade of U on one or more areas, the entire written exam is graded as failed. The Dissertation Committee will allow a retake for the portions of the written exam receiving grades of C or U. The retake must occur within 4 weeks. A grade of C or U on any portion of a retake exam will constitute failure of the entire written exam and the student will be dismissed from the doctoral program. After completion of the examination process, graded exams will be placed in the students’ files and retained as part of the permanent record.

If the student passes the written exam, he/she must then take the comprehensive oral exam by the end of the 5th semester of study or by the end of the semester in which the Committee announces that the student has passed the written exam.


Comprehensive Oral Exam will test general knowledge gained from the required courses, as well as specific knowledge related to elective courses and area of research. The Oral Exam will occur separately from the submission and defense of the Dissertation Research Proposal. Nevertheless, at the discretion of the Committee, a student can be tested on specific research area and the development of the dissertation topic to date. The Committee will evaluate performance in the following areas: 1) basic knowledge attained from graduate coursework, 2) specific knowledge pertaining to elective courses and research area, 3) critical thinking, and 4) presentation/communication skills.

A block of no less than 2 hours should be reserved for the examination in order to allow for adequate time for questions and answers (though the examination may last longer or shorter than this time). At the discretion of the Committee, the student can be asked to give a brief PowerPoint presentation (< 20 min) at the beginning of the exam that summarizes the development of the dissertation research project to date. The examination is not public.

When the Committee is finished with the oral questions, the student is excused. The Committee then evaluates the student's performance. After this discussion, the Committee will vote on the student’s performance. The student will be informed as to whether or not he/she passed immediately following the Committee vote. The student will not be informed of the vote tally.

If a Committee deems that a student has not passed the oral exam, the student may apply for re-examination on a date to be set no less than 30 days or more than 45 days from the date of the previous examination. The Committee will determine the nature of the second oral examination. In the event that a student does not pass the second oral examination, the student will not be allowed to continue in the Ph.D. program.

It is the student’s responsibility to consult with the Graduate Coordinator to ensure that all required forms are taken to the meeting and subsequently filed with the Graduate Coordinator.


Forms for the Qualifying Exam:


Written Dissertation Proposal

By no later than the end of the 6th semester of study, the student must present and defend a Dissertation Research Proposal before his/her Dissertation Committee. The student will first develop a preproposal (see details below) that includes a scientific problem, hypothesis and specific aims, and the Committee will provide constructive criticism. After the preproposal has been approved by the Committee, the student will submit and defend a full proposal (see details below) to the Committee. The presentation and defense of the dissertation proposal will occur separately from the Qualifying Examination.

The written proposal must be entirely the student's own work. However, the problem and approaches may be developed, clarified and refined by discussions with the Major Advisor, other faculty members, and other students. The student’s Advisor and Committee can provide guidance through this process, but the proposal must reflect the student’s individual ideas and abilities in scientific reasoning, experimental design, and scientific writing.

1. Preproposal submission:

A preproposal of 2-3 pages in length, single-spaced, must be submitted to the student's Committee at least 1 week before the presentation. The preproposal must describe an original research problem including brief background information, hypothesis, and a concise description of specific aims that will test the hypothesis without going into extensive experimental detail. The preproposal must be approved by all members of the student’s Committee. Students may give a brief (no more than 20 minutes) presentation explaining their preproposal to the Committee if requested by the Committee. If the preproposal is accepted, the student may proceed with the written proposal and thesis topic defense. However, if the Committee determines that further work is needed on the preproposal, changes must be made within 30 days followed by a second Committee meeting to present the revised preproposal.


2. Full Proposal submission, presentation and defense:

Written Proposal: The student must expand the approved preproposal into a full proposal modeled after an appropriate federal agency research grant submission. The proposal will typically not exceed 10-15 pages, excluding title page, figures and references. Preliminary data is not necessary but may be incoroporated if available. The written proposal should contain the following sections:

A. Hypothesis and Specific Aims: The specific aims state the objectives and goals of the research project towards testing the hypothesis.

B. Background and Significance: Briefly outline background material relevant to evaluate the proposal and to describe how this research will provide new scientific information. It is important to describe the broad impact of the proposal.

C. Experimental Design and Methods: Describe the research design and methods used to test the specific aims of the project. Include information on the data collection, analysis and expected results. Describe potential pitfalls and alternative approaches to achieve the aims.

D. Preliminary Data: If applicable

E. Vertebrate Animals: If applicable

F. References: Include complete references (authors, titles, journal, inclusive pages)for all references.

Presentation and Defense: The student must submit the full proposal to each member of the Committee at least 10 working days prior to the scheduled defense and no later than 30 days after approval of the pre-proposal. The student will present a PowerPoint presentation of the thesis topic, hypotheses, methodologies, and anticipated results. The Committee will ask questions directed at focusing the proposed research and assessing rigor and scientific inquiry of the student.


Dissertation Topic Approval

Following the successful defense of the dissertation proposal, the Dissertation Committee will approve the student's written dissertation research proposal and dissertation topic. Complete and submit form to Graduate Coordinator Proposal Defense for Doctoral Dissertation and/or Master's Thesis. Alternatively, the Dissertation Committee may require revisions to the written proposal before final topic approval. Approval of the dissertation topic can occur only after the successful completion of the Qualifying Exam, and must occur by the end of the 6th semester of graduate study. A student advances to candidacy following approval of the topic by the Dissertation Committee and the Dean of the Graduate School.